Author Interview: R. A. Nelson on Teach Me

Teach Me by R. A. Nelson (Razorbill, 2005). From the catalog copy: “What happens when a high school student and her teacher cross that line? From the very first page, Nine speaks in a voice that is at once raw, honest, direct, and unusually eloquent. ‘There has been an earthquake in my life,’ she says, inviting you inside an experience that fascinates everyone-an affair between teacher and student-and giving a personal answer to the question: How does this happen? A novel about a love so intense that the person you’re with becomes your world, and when you lose that person, you lose your world.” Ages 14-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

At the time I started Teach Me, I had just taken a break from writing for a couple of months after an intense period of activity. I wrote something like 150,000 words in the year leading up to this lull, and before that I had spent three years writing an earlier novel [manuscript] called “The House Of Novembers.” I was pretty much wrung out, and had become the poster child in our little online writing group for the writer who “oughta be published.” I’m not sure I ever seriously considered giving up, but I knew I needed a break.

Then one day the character of Nine appeared to me out of the blue – a girl from a two-parent family who is doted on by her NASA engineer father and overprotective mother. Nine is very responsible, focused, and driven to achieve scholastically; so much so, she hasn’t had much time for boys along the way. I was intrigued with this character because Nine cuts against the grain of so many characters you see in YA fiction – bored, angsty kids who come from dysfunctional families, broken homes, and/or who are simply mad at the world, sometimes for no discernible reason. It really interested me to write about a character who is EXCITED about life, passionate about her pursuits, a dreamer with her head in the clouds, but feet planted firmly on the earth.

But what was this character up to? I wrote around 5,000 words in Nine’s voice, the first time I had ever written anything in first person, present tense. I loved the immediacy of the writing. Also, I wrote in a style that was fast-paced with lots of short, choppy sentences and paragraphs, almost like lines of poetry, that was a lot of fun to play with. I’ve always liked experimenting stylistically with writing, trying things that feel completely new.

Then I stopped. I just wasn’t sure where this was all going – I loved the character, but I’m used to starting my books with an interesting idea, and maybe a hint of a storyline. So I put the book aside for several months, from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004. Then I showed it to several friends who got excited and said I should keep going. Keep going where? I wanted to know.

A couple of years earlier I had had an idea that intrigued me – the thought of turning the stereotypical “stalker” situation on its head. I thought it would be interesting to write about a teenage girl who was stalking an older man. I was talking this over with my friend, writer Kathleen O’Dell, who said, “But Nine seems so ANGRY. What is she mad about?” And I said, “Maybe she’s been sleeping with the guy and the guy dumped her? And that’s why she’s stalking him.” And Kathy said, “But who is this guy?” And then she answered her own question — “It’s her TEACHER! She’s been sleeping with her TEACHER!” It was one of those goose-bumpy moments. I said, “I can’t write about THAT!” And I didn’t mean I didn’t have enough ability, I meant I was AFRAID to do it…that it was just too much. I remember telling Kathy, “I live on a road with seven churches!”

But Kathy wouldn’t let me give up on the idea. She told me over and over to do it, that it was too good a marriage of character and idea NOT to write it – the thought of this scholastically obsessed, tunnel-vision girl falling hard for the teacher who introduces her to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. So I swallowed hard and kept going.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It took me another six months, writing every day, to complete the draft that eventually sold to Razorbill. Of course, I took it through many additional drafts along the way, reworking the structure and expanding on the love story that is the heart of the book. When I was getting underway again in earnest, I happened to notice that it was only about a week until the SCBWI deadline for the Work In Progress grant competition. I thought why not send them 2,500 words of what I already had? So I polished the first three chapters, filled out the application, and barely made the deadline literally by a handful of minutes.

In the meantime I kept plugging away on the novel, and when I was about 30,000 words into it, I queried literary agent Rosemary Stimola, who I thought would be a perfect fit for this book. I sent her a one page synopsis, and she requested the whole MS. I promised to send it to her when it was complete. Then I found out in early September of 2004 that I had won the SCBWI Dona Vaughn Work In Progress Grant, which had been established in memory of a generous, giving writer by the members of the YAWRITERS online list. Winning this grant was a wonderful boost that helped me push my way through to the end of the book.

In October I submitted the entire novel to Rosemary, and just before Thanksgiving she sent me an email saying she loved my book and wanted to take me on, but because the subject matter was pushing the envelope, she wanted to run it by an editor first. A friend of hers had mentioned Razorbill editor Liesa Abrams, thinking she would be perfect for the book. The day Rosemary emailed me, she had lunch with Liesa to make her pitch, and a couple of days later, they negotiated a two-book contract with lots of amazing clauses. I don’t think my feet touched the floor for a month. I might still be floating. Rosemary is incredible – I tend to think of her like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in ever way.” She has since sold the foreign rights, at auction, to the German publisher Ravensburger.

Liesa was very excited about the book, and the Razorbill marketing people wanted to get it out in time to be the lead title for their fall list. So I had almost exactly one month to complete her suggested revisions, which was an incredible experience. I work full time, so in the evenings I was in daily, sometimes HOURLY, contact with Liesa, working to get the book into galleys by January. I can’t say enough about her as an editor – I’ve known the revision process with other writers to take months, sometimes YEARS, but we got it done in a little over 30 days. Liesa didn’t ask for many cuts or changes, but mostly made wonderful suggestions for expanding scenes, more fully drawing out the relationship between the star-crossed lovers. Her input was key into making our book what it is. She’s a dream and a joy to work with, and someone I believe is one of the rising stars of the New York publishing industry.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

A lot of people have asked me how in the world I wrote a book in the voice of a teenage girl? Somebody once said, “Writers are failed actors,” and I tend to believe this. When I’m writing I completely inhabit the character, see the world through her eyes. I can’t imagine writing any other way. I see the story in front of me as I’m walking around inside of it, experiencing it as it unfolds, so that what I type almost seems more like “reporting” on something real that I’m observing. In the case of writing from a young girl’s perspective, from my way of thinking this is probably identical to an actor taking on a part that is very different from his own reality – once you begin to “think” with the character’s mind, it becomes more a process of letting go, of just getting out of your own way and describing what you see and feel as things happen. Usually this requires a little “throat-clearing,” sometimes several thousand words of it, to get to this point of “letting go.” I have a quote next to my desk from Franz Kafka that I found on a calendar a few years ago. It’s this: “From a certain point onward, there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” I love that kind of thinking.

To handle scenes that were emotionally or sexually charged, I let myself tap into what I think of as universal representations of these feelings, rather than feelings that might be specific to one gender.

One of the challenges I particularly enjoyed that became integral to the structure and theme of the book, was creating the character of the thirty-something male teacher, Mr. Mann. I never saw him as one dimensional, a slimy predator preying on young girls. To me, it was important that I liked him as a person, especially given the fact that I was living in the role of Nine, who was falling for him. I had to portray Mr. Mann as offbeat and interesting enough to galvanize her attention, while at the same time preventing his quirky self-confidence from translating into “deceiver” or “cad.” He needed to be a “good” man – a real human being with real human weaknesses. In early drafts of the novel, I had intended to give the reader only a tiny taste of the love story between teacher and student, say maybe a single chapter, while for the most part following Nine’s anger and obsession as she stalked him, with each incident growing more and more serious. But the love story kept expanding, and Liesa had me expand it even further until it became all the more poignant for the loss of this love. Liesa likes to call our book a “love story between the right people at the wrong time.”

What reactions have you received to the novel so far?

All the early reviews have been very positive, including Kirkus, and Teach Me was just picked by Booksense to be on their list of Fall 2005 Kid’s Picks.

My book has also been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and on the NBC Nightly News, along with many regional publications and TV programs. Given its controversial subject matter, I expected the book to have tough sledding in some quarters, and there has been a little bit of this, though to my knowledge no one who has actually READ the book has given it a bad review. I think when readers give my book a chance, they will be pleasantly surprised at how I’ve handled this sensitive issue.

I like to call Teach Me “emotionally” graphic rather than sexually graphic.

As Beth Reynolds remarked in her Booksense comments, “I never thought I would become so emotionally involved in a book about a student’s affair with her teacher. Highly recommended to teens wanting something more from their books than just pretty pink covers.”

Cynsational Notes

I love a folksy, Southern novel as much as the next person, but it was refreshing to read a book set in the south that wasn’t characterized by such affectations. It seems that in youth novels, southern equals either bigot/hick or homespun darlin’.

I know that Teach Me (and the surrounding coverage) has generated a lot of discussion among YA librarians. Any of you who’re among cynsational readers are encouraged to share this URL with your on-and-offline colleagues. R. A. Nelson has offered a wonderful insight into his book.

By the way, I met children’s/YA literary agent Rosemary Stimola when she spoke at a recent Austin SCBWI conference. She works with a number of my friends, including Anne Bustard, Dianna Hutts Aston, and Jane Peddicord. I’m most impressed by Rosemary and hold her in high regard.

I should also mention that I’m on the YAWriter listserv that established the Dona Vaughn Work In Progress Grant that R. A. Nelson won.

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Austinites: remember that Greg Leitich Smith is signing Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005) at the Round Rock Barnes & Noble at 2 p.m. on Aug. 27.

The Southern Breeze chapter of SCBWI is hosting a schmooze featuring author R. A. Nelson Sept. 17 at the Huntsville (AL) Public Library Main Branch from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Review of Teach Me by Amber Skinner from Pele Publications.